I started out in ministry when I was just a teenager. I gave my first sermon, or as is called in my tradition my "trial sermon," at age 19. When I started preaching I was around the same age that Michael Brown was when he was shot and killed a few days ago in Ferguson, Missouri. I have since gone on to earn several college degrees, to become a college professor, and a chaplain. Michael Brown will not. Had he lived long enough, perhaps I would have been fortunate enough to meet him when he would have presented research at an academic conference. Unfortunately, the college-bound student was gunned downed before he ever stepped foot in a college classroom.
As a young African American male, it is clear to me that my ecclesiastic and socioeconomic standing will not shield me from this reality: Michael's story could at any given moment become my story. In the eyes of some, we are a burden to our nation and a threat to their existence. In moments of unrest like this we need to hear words that speak healing to our hearts and minds. Words that will guide us through the aftermath of yet another death of an unarmed black male at the hands of those who swore to protect us -- deaths that bespeak a deep racial divide in the U.S.
Over the past few days we have heard from local and federal law enforcement officials and attorneys involved in the case. We've heard from political figures, civil rights leaders, the bereaved parents of Michael Brown, and even from President Obama regarding this case. These voices are important to hear, and yet and still the exigencies and implications of Brown's death call for another voice.
Historically, Judeo-Christian traditions and scriptures brim with examples of trusted individuals who were "called" by God to be his spokespersons to stand in sacred spaces and to address exigencies of social ills, social injustice, and the complicity of the privileged in the face of the oppression of others. Anomalously, I am not scheduled to preach in my local church or anywhere in the nation this Sunday. However, if I were, I would present my sermon against the backdrop of an ancient, yet timely, question posed by King Zedekiah as recorded in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 37:17, when in the midst of his own national crises Zedekiah asked Jeremiah, "Is there a word from the LORD?..."
As videos of hundreds of protesters being tear-gassed by police flooded Twitter, as Facebook feeds were filled with comments of black mothers who struggle to believe that the U.S. is a safe space in which to raise their black baby boys in, I echo the words of King Zedekiah: "Is there a word from the LORD?" This Sunday and in the weeks to come we need men and women of the faith to effectively articulate how this ancient text speaks to and informs our current lived experiences, especially in increasingly militarized spaces of color.
Is there a word for the family of Michael Brown and for the citizens of Ferguson? Is there a word for a nation that continues to structurally support the devaluation of black life, including that of our Trayvon Martins, Sean Bells, Oscar Grants, Eric Garners, and Renisha McBrides? Is there a word from the Lord for my fellow clergymen and women who continue to preach to parishioners as if they are only members of the church and not members of society? Is there a word for the faithful who safely prefer to stay in our comfortable houses of worship and "pray" for our nation rather than having praying feet that will allow us to form strategic alliances to bring about the kind of spiritual, economic, and political organizing that can tear down racial inequality, among other forces?
Is there a word from the Lord that would challenge my white clergy members who love to simply write off and distance themselves from the racist acts of one of two individuals [i.e., cops] as being the acts of 'one or two bad apples out there' but fail to acknowledge how they and their predominantly white congregations benefit from the very same system of white privilege? For some, this privilege will be in full effect on Sunday when they remain homiletically silent about the implications of Brown's death in relationship to their white privilege. Once again they will fail to acknowledge how their group's unearned social advantage is directly tied to another group's social disadvantage. That's privilege!
Is there a word from the Lord that would speak to the black males of this nation to tell us that our blackness is not the sign of one who is "less than," "the other," "savage," or "animal"? Is there a word that would speak to a colonized mind-set that would have people of color to think that we are anything other than wonderfully and fearfully made like everyone else? Is there a word that would encourage the thousands of foot soldiers of justice whose everyday actions continue to change our nation? Michael, if I were preaching this Sunday I would remind your family that their resources are not limited to what they can see. Those who are on the side of justice are more than those who are against it. We will get through this.
If I were preaching this Sunday, I would preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. As spokespersons for God and ministers of the gospel our job is to find the exegetical answers for the Zedekiahs all across the nation and then to communicate those answers to the masses. No other question is more important to answer at this time. When asked, "Is there a word from the Lord?" Jeremiah responded, "Yes, there is." In the face of Michael Brown's death, how will we answer to the same on Sunday?